It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Sandy in 1978’s Grease, but Olivia Newton-John almost turned the movie down. At 29, she felt she might look ridiculous trying to pass for a high school student in the musical.
“I was very anxious about making another film, because my music career was going well and I did not want to mess it up by doing another movie that wasn’t good,” she exclusively explains to Closer. But audiences gave all the “kids” — some of whom were older than Olivia! — of Rydell High a pass. The movie became a modern classic, and Olivia went from a Grammy-winning singer to pop culture icon.
In more recent years, Olivia, 72, has also become an inspiration. First diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, she’s gone through three courses of treatment over the years and calls herself a cancer “thriver.” The star lends her name to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. “I’m very excited to fund research,” Olivia tells Closer, “to look into treating people in a kinder way.”
Keep scrolling below for Closer‘s exclusive Q&A interview with Olivia Newton-John!
How did you spend the past year?
Mainly I’ve been at home in California. We’re Florida residents, but we were stuck in California — if you can call it that. It was unusual for me because my whole life I feel like I’ve been on a plane or a car, traveling and living out of a suitcase. So this time has been wonderful.
You’re famous for being a big animal and nature lover.
Nature is my favorite thing. It’s very healing to watch birds. I also have miniature horses, chickens, dogs and a cat. I feel very fortunate to be in a quiet place and out of a city.
When you first started out, who were the women in show business you looked up to?
It’s sad because she just passed recently, but Helen Reddy encouraged me to come
to America. I went to see her in concert in Florida when she was at the height of her career. She said, ‘If you want to make it here, darling, you need to move here.’ So I took her advice, and we stayed friends. She actually invited me to a dinner party with [film producer] Allan Carr, and that’s really how Grease came about.
Wow, that worked out!
Yes. Helen inspired me a lot. I also always loved Doris Day when I was young. I still love Joan Baez, Dionne Warwick, gosh, so many women.
Did you ever meet Doris?
Yes! I met her backstage at an Elvis concert in Las Vegas. We were waiting for him in the dressing room — he got called away. She was a delightful woman. I really admired her [career] and what she did with animal charities too.
What are your favorite memories of filming Grease?
Fun! It was a lot of fun, like going to a school I never attended. I went to a very strict, uniform-wearing school, with boys on one end of the stairwell and girls on the other. It was not like Rydell!
Are you amazed at the longevity of the movie?
It’s really amazing. I’m very grateful to be part of a movie that is still loved. Who would have ever dreamt it 40-plus years later?
Do you still stay in touch with the cast?
We do stay in touch. There is an e-mail chain with a bunch of us. John [Travolta] and I have done meet-and-greets. And Didi [Conn] and I are really close still. We all have a great relationship because we shared some very special times together.
Earlier this year, you released a duet with your daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, called “Window in the Wall.” What was that experience like?
Chloe lives in Portland, Oregon, so I don’t see her very often, but one of the gifts of this pandemic has been being able to spend time with her. So it was wonderful to have the opportunity to be together, hang out and do a song together.
She is 35 now. How has your mother-daughter relationship evolved over the years?
We went through all the normal stuff that all children go through with their parents. Now she’s an adult, so we can discuss things as adults. We have wonderful times together.
What was your reaction to Chloe following in your footsteps into music? Were you hesitant?
No, because she’s had a beautiful voice since she was little. I’ve had such an amazing time in this business that it would be weird for me to say don’t do it.
Why did you launch the Olivia Newton-John Foundation?
After having lived for years with different cancers, and having surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, I thought it would be wonderful if we could find different kinds of treatments for people going through cancer. I’ve been lucky enough to be married to an amazing man, “Amazon” John [Easterling], who’s a plant medicine man. So I’ve taken a lot of plant medicine over the last years and have done well. We want to raise money to fund the studies on plant medicine.
What has seemed to help you the most?
There are a lot of herbs I take. And over the last 10 years, I’ve used cannabis. My husband makes me tinctures that help me immensely with pain, inflammation, sleep and anxiety. I’d like to research all that and find out what else is going on because I feel good.
I’d also been eating vegan because my daughter was visiting me and she’s a vegan. I feel very good. I try to do something for myself every day that I love, like seeing my horses or sitting in the garden.
What would you still like to accomplish?
I’d like to see a world beyond cancer. I think I’ve accomplished everything I dreamt of and more, and I’m so grateful for that. I want to be able to give back and help other people going through cancer. I don’t think it can get more important than that.
— Reporting by Katie Bruno